Dr. Bernard Pitcher BSc ARCS (1909-2000)

First congenitally deaf person to hold a Ph.D.

By Geoffrey Eagling

The only son of H. A. Pitcher, a civil servant, Bernard Pitcher was born deaf on 18 September 1909, in Worthing, West Sussex. At the age of four, Bernard had one Mrs Johnstone coming over to his house daily for one hour’s tutelage and two years later attended Miss Wehner’s private school at ‘Stanley Villas’, no.22 Stanley Road, Carshalton, Surrey. At the age of nine, he attended Dene Hollow School in Burgess Hill, Sussex and was taught by Miss Mary Hare for seven years. He was grateful to her for enabling him to develop a priceless possession of clear and unusually accurate, straightforward language. He was then transferred to Spring Hill School, a private school for the deaf boys in Clifton, Northampton in 1926 and took an academic curriculum for seven years. He successfully gained his Oxford Junior Examination in 1928, which led him to study scientific subjects at a higher level.

Mr Innes-Jones, the headmaster of Spring Hill School, did not think he was remarkable as there were other boys of the same age in his class far ahead of him. But after such success, he made rapid progress and by the end of 1929 he sat for Oxford Senior Examinations and passed four subjects, but was one short of the required five passes to obtain the Certificate. The following year he gained six more credits. His subjects were Botany, Arithmetic, Mensuration, French, History of the British Empire, Geography, English, Religious Knowledge, Painting and Model, Flat and Memory Drawing.

Aiming for a University degree in Science, he had to study Higher Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics and Mechanics. For Chemistry and Physics practical work, Bernard attended the local Northampton Technical College and gained useful experience. He also received private tuition in mechanics and trigonometry from Mr Bailey, the head of the said college. In 1932 Bernard passed all required subjects necessary for admission to the University. In all the years during which Bernard received his education, the oral method of was used. The Sunday Times dated 6 November 1932 reported that:

Bernard’s examination successes would be an unusually good record for anyone possessed of all faculties but when it is remembered that he had to spend a large part of his time in the slow and tedious of learning to speak, to read lips of others and to build up the elements of the English language, it is a remarkable achievement.

Bernard was not only an academic, but also a keen opening batsman in cricket in spite of wearing a pair of spectacles. In one season he scored 46 not out in a school cricket match against Northampton Grammar School 2nd XI. In 1932 his batting average was over 70. Bernard was also a good swimmer.

In the autumn of 1932, Bernard entered the Royal College of Science, University of London, and embarked on a course for a degree in Science. In the 1933 issue of Spring Hill magazine, he explained how he overcome the problems of following lectures by getting a student to write carbon copies of the lectures for him. In the 1949 Mary Hare Grammar School’s Bluebird magazine, he wrote that when he attended lectures where lantern slides were being shown in the dark, he resorted to flashing torchlight on the notepaper of the student who was writing. By his determination, persistence and courage, he sweated his way through and was duly awarded the B.Sc. with 2nd Class Honours degree in addition to the diploma of Associate of Royal College of Science in July 1936. Bernard continued his studies in geology at the Imperial College of Science and did his fieldwork in Shropshire where he collected and classified fossils, discovering a number of species of fossils, which had not been described before. His thesis on this work, titled, The Upper Valentian Gastropod Fauna of Shropshire, earned him the Ph.D. degree in May 1939. He became the first congenitally deaf person in the United Kingdom to have achieved this distinction.

Away from his studies, Bernard was a keen amateur astronomer, possessing a small observatory in his garden. He contributed two papers to The Dene Hollow Association Magazine, one in 1933 on the subject of astronomy and the mysteries of Sun and Jupiter, and the other in 1934 about Mars, the Red Planet.

Bernard Pitcher was by nature quiet, unassuming and conscientious and he was a man of private means. Due to his delicate health, he never worked all his life and depended on his parents' wealth. During his early years, he was a regular at the Spurs Club for the Deaf in London, reuniting with his old school fellows from both Dene Hollow and Spring Hill. For the greater part of his life, he was the Secretary of his local Deaf Club in Worthing where he died at the age of 90 on 17 April 2000 in a local residential care home. He was buried at Durrington Cemetery in Worthing on 9 May 2000; the location of his grave is detailed as: - Section no.8, Row no.22 and grave no.2. He was never married.

Sources:

Bernard L. Pitcher – Britain’s First Ph.D. by John A. Hay, Deaf History Journal Supplement V August 1999, Pub. by British Deaf History Society

Bernard L. Pitcherfor Deaf Lives by Anthony J. Boyce and John A. Hay, Pub. by British Deaf History Society. British Deaf History Society, ISBN 1-902427-08-4, dated 2001.

The Arnold Way, A brief history and pictorial record of the NorthamptonHigh School for the Deaf 1868-1945 by Anthony J. Boyce, Pub. by British Deaf History Society, ISBN 978-1-902427-32-4, dated 2008

Pile's Sutton & District Directory, Sutton Archives and Local Studies Centre, Central Library, St Nicholas Way Sutton, Surrey SM1 1EA

Worthing Borough Council, Durrington Cemetery, Findon Road, Worthing. BN14 0AA

 

This page was added on 12/04/2010.
Comments about this page

BBC's See Hear filmed an interview with Bernard and Jean English translated for him. I missed the programme so never saw the interview. I hope someone can show it to us.

By Diana Neal
On 23/07/2010

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